What is Walker Cup's main goal?

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 6, 2013, 10:52 pm

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – What’s the ultimate goal of the Walker Cup?

One question, two wildly different answers.

Here’s U.S. captain Jim Holtgrieve, on the eve of the biggest event in amateur golf: “It’s not about winning. It’s about building relationships, and that’s what these guys are going to do.”

OK, so what is more important to you, GB&I captain Nigel Edwards: winning or building relationships? After the laughter subsided, he didn’t hesitate.

“I’m here to win.”

Illuminating replies – especially at an event that has grown decidedly more competitive in the past two decades.

Sure, the overall record shows it is 34-8-1 in the Americans’ favor. But they have split the past 12 meetings, 6-6. Over that span the U.S. leads in total points, 155 1/2 to 136 1/2, though that statistic is skewed by the beatdowns in 1997 (18-6) and 1993 (19-5).

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Great Britain and Ireland has won just twice on American soil in the 91-year history of this event, and not since 2001. But this 44th Walker Cup should be particularly intriguing, especially because a firm, fast and gusty National Golf Links could actually better suit the visitors.

After all, this GB&I squad boasts the winners of the U.S. Amateur, British Amateur, St. Andrews Links Trophy and the English Amateur. The other team members have previously won the Irish Amateur, European Amateur and qualified for the U.S. Open.

“You look at the success of this team,” Edwards said, “and this is a strong team.”

Two years ago, the U.S. team arrived at Royal Aberdeen as a heavy favorite with a lineup that featured Jordan Spieth, Harris English, Peter Uihlein, Patrick Cantlay and Russell Henley. The Americans still lost.

“Everybody was saying how strong the American team was,” Edwards said. “Well, with the population in America, it’s hard not to have a strong team, isn’t it?”

Good point, though this collection of U.S. talent isn’t as talented (or as deep) as the group that lost, 14-12, in the brutal Scottish winds.

That’s partly self-inflicted. Holtgrieve, who also captained the team in 2011, changed his approach in hopes of reversing his fortune in the biennial event. He scouted more players and spent more time on the road, taking in nine events in all. He studied chipping and putting statistics, knowing that National stressed those aspects of a player’s game.

His biggest shakeup, however, was the formation of his team. It was the 65-year-old Holtgrieve who initially suggested that the mid-amateurs should have a permanent place on the team. Last year he asked Nathan Smith, a four-time U.S. Mid-Am champ, whether he had any intentions of trying to make his third Walker Cup squad.

“I’m 34 years old,” Smith told him, “and I can’t compete in the tournaments that you need to compete in to make the Walker Cup. I’ve got a wife. I’ve got a job.”

That “hit home” for Holtgrieve, who played in the Walker Cup when he was 35. He vowed to lobby the USGA to consider putting two mid-ams on the team, hopeful that the rule would go into effect in 2015. Apparently, enough important people liked his suggestion, and here we are, two years early.

“It’s the right decision,” Holtgrieve said. “How do we grow the game? Only by winning? Come on.”

GB&I has no such mid-am mandate, and its oldest player, 27-year-old Neil Raymond, reached the quarterfinals of the recent U.S. Amateur and will turn pro later this month.

That’s OK with the USGA – or at least that’s what it says publicly – which is why the bluecoats have always made this two-day event about more than just golf for the 10 team members.

Sure, they have played nine practice rounds in the past three weeks at National, but players have also been treated to an itinerary that included three nights at the W Hotel in downtown NYC, a tour of the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero, a trip to the U.S. Open tennis tournament (including a photo-op with Roger Federer), and a lunch and four-hole spin with former President George W. Bush.

But another U.S. loss this weekend would be a seminal moment for this event, especially with nearly all of the other significant Cups (Ryder, Solheim, Curtis), including this one, already filling up trophy cases across the pond.

“When we tee off, the goal will be to win,” assured Cal’s Michael Weaver. “When all this stuff is going on, yeah, it’s a lot of fun. But I guarantee you the main thing we’ll be focusing on tomorrow is trying to play our best to win.”

So maybe that is the ultimate goal of the Walker Cup, after all.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.